Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History
While Kiri Riwai Couch was pleased to have the above photograph as the one to be used to promote Kuia, I found it a bit off-putting. Hence not viewing the exhibition till just a week before it closed.
Not that it is a bad image, especially within the context of the others it hangs beside. But the expression and the moko lead me to expect it would be a bit shallow and overly staunch, and maybe a bit try hard in trying to link 21st kuia with traditional Maori culture.
In fact that particular portrait turned out to be the odd woman out. The vast majority of the images are much softer and uncontentious in their flavour (not that I’m afraid of challenging exhibitions, just ones that are a bit predictable).
Couch has done what all good portrait photographers do and let the sitter’s visage speak for itself. Her subjects are relaxed and in a natural frame of mind. She has wisely chosen a simple approach, excluding any extra extraneous background that might distract from the faces and shooting in black and white.
The secret of this type of portraiture is capturing as much detail of the face as possible. This alone is all you need to give you all the information you need. The relationship of the photographer to the sitter is incredibly important. This can be built in seconds or over years, as in this case. Obviously Couch’s close rapport with her subjects works to her advantage. Having met a small number of these women momentarily, I can see Couch has certainly captured their best qualities.
Couch has brought out the natural dignity of the women. The text beside the portraits fills in the back stories but in a way, it’s all there in the photographs anyway. Clearly these are giving women, who the accompanying text reveals, have made important contributions to their communities through Te Reo, kohanga reo, education, their churches and in other ways.
Being Maori is important to them, but there is no attempt to set them apart from the modern world they live in, and turn them into living relics as used to be the case. Their whakapapa is expressed through the curves of their faces and the pendants some wear.